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Game Preview #50: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins

The New Jersey Devils will visit the Pittsburgh Penguins for a crucial inter-division match-up. This game preview goes into who's sick now on the Devils, Lee Stempniak being a star, who's important on the Penguins, and a quick look at their coaching change.

Let's go Lee Stempniak! Score another one against the Penguins!
Let's go Lee Stempniak! Score another one against the Penguins!
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

It's the last game before the All Star Break.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (25-19-5) at the Pittsburgh Penguins (23-17-7; SBN Blog: PensBurgh)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils visited Winnipeg on Saturday night.  The game was filled with defense; plenty of contact, checks, and other physical play. Eventually, there would be shots.  Then there was a blooper. Tobias Enstrom fell and took out Blake Wheeler in his own end of the rink. This allowed Michael Cammalleri to pick up a loose puck and send it across to Lee Stempniak for a tap-in past Connor Hellebuyck for the game's first goal.  The Devils actually played better in the first period after the goal, which was impressive. Then the second period happened and the Jets pinned back the Devils such that it took over fifteen minutes for New Jersey's first shot on net of the period. That's the wrong kind of impressive. The first shot wasn't.  During a power play, David Schlemko fed Jacob Josefson at the left circle for a one-timer that beat Hellebuyck.  It was 2-0 and the Jets responded with not a whole lot. The Devils sharpened up in the third period and would be rewarded again.  Eric Gelinas took a wrist shot and it trickled through the goalie - thanks to a deflection in front by Stempniak.  The Devils appeared to be in control and they mostly were. The Jets got on the board late with a power play goal; Dustin Byfuglien freely chipping up a rebound in front of Cory Schneider.  Yet, that would be the extent of their comeback.  The Devils couldn't get the empty netter, Stempniak couldn't get his hat trick, but they got the two points in a 3-1 win. My recap of the win is here.

The Last Penguins Game: On the same day Devils were playing the Jets, the Penguins were hosting Vancouver.  This game went awry very quickly for the Penguins.  Jannik Hansen scored 27 seconds in.  Later in the first period, Hansen scored again - a shorthanded goal to put the visitors up 0-2.  In the second period, the Penguins would get on the board when Evgeni Malkin converted a power play.  Then the third period became a goalfest. Bo Horvat scored at 6:00 to restore the two goal lead.  A little over a minute later, Malkin scored his second of the night to make it 2-3.  At 10:22, Malkin completed his natural hat trick and tied the game up.  At 13:00, Bryan Rust - yes, theBryan Rust - broke the tie for Pittsburgh.  Sidney Crosby sailed in an empty netter to make it 6-3 at 18:37. The Canucks still went for it and Hansen would complete his own hat trick at 19:43.  But that would be the end of the scoring. The Penguins' comeback effort was successful and they won 5-4.  Over at PensBurgh, Hooks Oprik praised Malkin's performance in his recap and Mike Darney went into the game's numbers in this post.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: Back on November 14, 2015 (and a coach ago for Pittsburgh), the Devils hosted Pittsburgh for the first time this season.  What transpired was (and is) the best game of the 2015-16 season for the Devils.  The Devils were in control early and never really lost it, even in the face of penalties. After killing their second of the first period, David Schlemko joined the rush and was set up by Michael Cammalleri for the game's first goal.  In the second period, Cammalleri converted a power play to make the Pens pay for Malkin tripping Schlemko.  Early in the third period, Bobby Farnham scored his second of the season. He was serving a team minor for too many men on the bench; he flew out of the box to add to the lead. Later in the third, Lee Stempniak finished a 2-on-1 with, who else, Cammalleri setting him up.  The Devils were just rolling and the Penguins had no answer. Cory Schneider got his first shutout of the season in a 4-0 victory by the Devils.  Shane recapped the game at AATJ, you check it out here. For the other side, Eric Bowser had this related post noting how much trouble Mike Johnston appeared to be in at the time. He would only last as Penguins head coach for a few more weeks.

The Goal: Contain the Malkin line.  No disrespect to Sidney Crosby, but Evgeni Malkin has been Pittsburgh's leading scorer and he's coming off a hat trick. When he's in the proverbial zone, he's one of the best on the entire planet.  That alone should draw plenty of attention.  His wingers will carry additional importance based on what Left Wing Lock has listed them to be. Phil Kessel may not have fantastic scoring numbers, but he's very fast and he will shoot the puck a ton.  The somewhat-recent Penguin Carl Hagelin is on the other wing. He is also quite fast and while he's not as offensive, he will definitely get chances alongside Kessel and Malkin. With the Devils on the road, it's very possible that Pittsburgh will try to get this line out against New Jersey's lesser players.  It's more important that they don't get too aggressive and concede odd man rushes or large swaths of ice for Hagelin or Kessel (or Malkin) to take.  This is a very dangerous line.  If the Devils can keep them relatively quiet and/or stop them from going off on the rush, then the game will become easier. Not a lot easier as Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist will probably follow them, but easier.

Another Hit to the Defense: Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice yesterday that Adam Larsson and David Schlemko are sick and did not practice. The hope is that both will be ready to play this game.  If not, then there will have to be call ups as there would be only four or five healthy defensemen.  We've seen the Devils play short a forward; but playing short a defenseman is a bad idea.  It's potentially worse given who these defenders are. Larsson has been a mainstay on the top pairing, going up against difficult players at evens and on the PK.  That's not at all an easy spot to fill.  Schlemko plays fewer minutes but he's been solid enough.  He's also been an effective member of the power play's recent resurgence.  Also not an easy spot to fill. Although it's easier than a hole made by Larsson being absent.

Given that Sergey Kalinin has recently been ill, I wonder if sickness is just going through the Devils locker room.  With a five-day break coming up, this is the best time for that to happen.  Better now than during a week during a very busy February schedule.  The tell for their availability will be whether someone from Albany arrives in Pittsburgh today. 

If no one is called up, then expect the same six defensemen from Saturday.  If there are any call ups, then one or both are out (and possibly put on IR for a week; essentially just a move for this game). Who could be called up?  I suspect Marc-Andre Gragnani would be one given his recent experience.  We could see Vojtech Mozik make his NHL debut.  Personally, I'd want Larsson and Schlemko to be healthy for this game.

Star: Lee Stempniak has been prolific with the points. He's got four goals and an assist in his last three games and he's riding a four game point streak (4 G, 2 A).  He's been named the Second Star of last week by the NHL. I think it's deserved. He's been playing rather well as of late.  The return of Michael Cammalleri has helped him and Adam Henrique be more involved on offense.  I'd like to see him keep it up.  The line will draw attention (they would anyway as it's an offensive line), which could allow more chances for Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, and Joseph Blandisi to shine.  A player who's enjoying a hot streak benefits more than himself.

Please Change the Third Line, Hynes: Based on Gulitti's report from practice, it appears there is a chance we could see Bobby Farnham line up with Jacob Josefson and Reid Boucher again.  I would hope a healthy Kalinin bumps Farnham from that line and thereby bumps someone else (Tuomo Ruutu? Jordin Tootoo?) for the fourth line.  Farnham was out of his depth with Josefson and Boucher as the trio got beat on in the run of play by Winnipeg on Saturday.  As such, they did next to nothing on offense at even strength.  If I'm Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan and I see 12-16-23 out there, then I'm making every effort to get the unit featuring #71 or #87 after them.  Those three struggled with the Jets, it's likely going to be much worse.  Not that Kalinin will dissuade Sullivan from doing that anyway, but I think it's a better match up with Kalinin instead of Farnham.

The Pittsburgh Coaching Change: Sullivan certainly is new.  He became the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins after the team fired Mike Johnston on December 12.  Under his tutelage, the team has a sterling 8-7-4 record.  OK, that's not great.  And seeing that he followed the 15-10-3 record by Mike Johnston, I'm not seeing much of an improvement - and surely ownership isn't either.  Johnston was presumably fired for not getting results and right now Sullivan isn't doing much better. 

Perhaps the team is playing better under Sullivan?  Well, let's take a quick look at the 5-on-5 numbers at War on Ice. 5-on-5 hockey is the most common situation in hockey.  How the team fares there is a good way of determining if they're good or not.  Under Johnston, the team was ahead of New Jersey in possession (48.4% CF% to New Jersey's 48%).  In 5-on-5 play, they were shooting at a low 6.3%. So while their goaltending boasted a 94% save percentage, the team scored 41 goals and allowed 40. Unfortunately under Sullivan, the percentages haven't stayed like that. The shooting has been even less fortunate as it dipped to 5.7%. The goaltending has become less stupendous with a 92.6% save percentage.  As a result, they're now below even in goal differential. The good news is that the possession has gone much, much better.   Their 55.7% CF% is the best in the NHL since December 13. If one believes a couple of cold sticks will warm up eventually - especially in the case of Kessel (sort of, 9.5% isn't a bad shooting percentage), Hornqvist, Hagelin - then it shouldn't be a surprise if the Penguins start looking more like the contender some think they should be.

At least it looks like Sullivan has the squad playing in a system that benefits them as a whole.  That said, as we know from recent Devils seasons, a rising shooting percentage isn't a guarantee even with excellent possession.  Unlike those Devils teams, Pittsburgh still has two aces who can help them through these rough scoring patches. The pressure to perform will be on them, yet again should they want to make the postseason and want to have Sullivan to stick around. 

The Aces You Know: Malkin, Crosby, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury.  They're not old in an age sense, but they're still the foundation of the franchise.  The three skaters are first, second, and third in points on the team. Malkin is a top-ten scorer with 23 goals and 24 assists in 47 games, Crosby absolutely can be on that level and he's got 16 goals and 24 assists.  Letang - a do-it-all and do-it-well defender - has six goals and 26 assists, which puts him in the top ten of scoring by defensemen in the NHL. All three are excellent players.  Fleury hasn't been too shabby himself. His even strength (92.9%) and penalty kill (88.3%) save percentages are pretty good. Not as high as they were earlier in the year, but he's not at all in the Cam Ward Zone.  As anyone who has faced the Penguins for the better part of the last decade now, these are the four main players to deal with.

Who will support them? Up at the Goal, I noted who was skating recently with Malkin and Crosby on their respective lines.  Kessel, Hornqvist, and Hagelin are ones to watch for. Among those I have not yet mentioned, I would note that you'll see Olli Maatta a lot with Letang.  He's a young, burgeoning defender who has been as productive as Letang in 5-on-5 play. The underlying numbers for Ben Lovejoy has been quite good, though I would want the Devils skaters to challenge him early and often.

The Division: In some ways, this game is critical for the Devils' place in the standings. The Penguins have games in hand on the Devils, but a win by New Jersey wards off the Pens.  In some ways, it's not that critical because most of next month's games will be within the Metropolitan Division.  All the same, we'll find out how real the Devils' playoff chances are very soon. Maybe tonight.

One Final Thought: "Crucial" Cory Schneider will start his sixth in a row, according to Gulitti, before going to Nashville for the All Star Game.  I hope he leaves a lasting impression on Pittsburgh without the Devils forcing him to be impressive, if you catch my drift.

Your Take: The Devils will take on the Penguins before breaking until next week.  Let's hope it's a good finish to the unofficial first half of the season (the official one was nine games ago).  What do you think will happen tonight? Who do you expect to have a good game for the Devils tonight?  Who on Pittsburgh concerns you the most?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.